Finding the Flow
Rick Rubin and Andre 3000 talking about their feelings is what I needed in my life, as it turns out.
I stumbled upon a year-old recording of Broken Record, Rick Rubin’s podcast, in which he talked to Mister Three-stacks about how he started making music, why he isn’t making music now, and the challenges of being a sensitive person in society.
Anyone not familiar with the shape of Andre 3000’s career need only know that he started off in an Atlanta basement honing a style that would lead him and his partner Big Boi to superstardom in the music and fashion worlds. Their sound was unique and defiant, their fashion sense influenced by the bombastic fashions of the 70’s funk era but was something entirely new, entirely their own.
Grammy after Grammy for a handful of years… Classic yet completely unique hip-hop. And then nothing. After the widely lauded double-album SPeakerboxx/The Love Below (which was conspicuously two distinct albums), and the beautiful music-video/movie Idlewild (which rehashed many songs from the double-album), Outkast went silent.
Well, not totally silent. Big Boi has a very robust solo catalog and has been touring/continuing his musical career unbothered by the split.
Andre 3000 occasionally does features (that whip the whole hip-hop community into a frenzy scrutinizing and speculating) but hasn’t released a significant project since. Why? Because it’s what people want him to do.
He dominated rap because people told him he couldn’t. He wore weird costumes and designed his clothes because it was what other people weren’t doing. He quit rap and never produced another hip-hop record because it’s what people want him to do.
He likened it to being a kid in a room, playing with toys. You’ve got your army men, you’ve got your ninja turtles, you’ve got a firetruck. You create worlds for them. You take them on adventures. You pit them against each other in epic battles. And then mom opens the door and the world disappears. When mom closes the door again the world can reappear. With celebrity the door never closes, and so that space to ‘create your world’ can never really exist in the same way it did when you were nobody.
His solution? Drop into dive bars and check out unsigned acts. Also play solo flute/bass clarinet concerts in random flea markets (seriously).
I recognized this feeling, to a point. Obviously I am no celebrity… But I do bristle against promoting/sharing my art. In some ways it sort of ruins the idea that I am only doing this for myself. In other ways it completely destroys that “safe space” I created as an artist to allow myself to be vulnerable enough to access and articulate these creative ideas (thankfully I didn’t have to duck into my crawl space to achieve the effect).
In that context, being a “stranger” to the ‘scene’ my whole career has allowed me to make some of my best work, free from the critique of others. I can’t imagine how I’d feel fully losing that space.
And yet here we are.
And here I am listening to Andre 3000 express exasperation about people’s expectations of him. (Ironically, he thinks songs on this topic come off as whiny/wack… ahem, LOGIC…), about what motivates him, about what worries him, and those basic emotions were alarmingly resonant.
Then at one point Rubin said something that clearly broke Andre’s brain for a bit. He said “Y’know, you don’t have to BE new to MAKE new.”
He then talked about the Beatles and Sgt. Pepper’s, and Radiohead Kid A, and >50% of Kanye’s career, and Paul Simon, and all these artists that completely reinvent themselves after establishing clear expectations of who they were. There are countless examples of this in all art.
It’s frankly weird Andre 3000 doesn’t consider himself among this company… I think it just occurred to him that Rick Rubin has spent his entire career living on the bleeding edge of modern music. His catalog is unimpeachable.
Rick Rubin has, whether formally or informally, a process for living in the new. Andre wants to play bass clarinet in a flea market? Beautiful! Because Andre self-identified a space where he can begin the process of exploring the new. Same with checking out new music.
Rubin is essentially the embodiment of the growth mindset, the idea that you always have something to learn and you can always innovate if you’re learning.
The most startling revelation from this conversation was that Rick Rubin and Andre 3000, perhaps two of the more innovative artists alive, are never quite content. They both described their achievements as tied to “filling” something in their lives that was missing, and their ambition led them to great accomplishments, only to realize that the ‘hole’ they set out to fill was either the same or even a bit bigger now.
Because the accomplishments were never the point.
The point was, and always will be, finding a space to recreate the epic battles of your childhood imagination. To close that door to your room and put the hand-drawn DO NOT DISTURB sign on the knob so mom can’t interrupt you.
Figuratively, of course (although if you’re into cosplay/LARPing that’s a similar energy, if a bit on the nose)
In the business world, they refer to this space as flow, a state you enter where time has no meaning and you are totally immersed in a task or project. The innovations come from the tip of your tongue, the productivity skyrockets.
They call it flow in rap too. They’re not at all different concepts.
I feel so blessed to have stumbled across this reflection between two insanely accomplished yet highly human artists. While it can be a bit disheartening to think that no amount of accomplishment can ever quell the vague creative anxieties that emerge at all stages of the process, it’s also nice to know that those anxieties do not inhibit said accomplishments directly (or at least they don’t HAVE to). LIke, if the tension never disappears, then my best path forward is to keep working through the tension.
Finding the flow isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the work.
All the best,
Jonathan “Doc Wattson” The Native Stranger